CATTARAUGUS - He's had to fight from the day he was born. But Zach Fisher's no wuss.
To date, this pint-sized scrapper has gone through five open-heart surgeries, the most recent one just a couple of weeks ago at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
Zach was born with a congenital heart disease. There's a fancy name for it, ''Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome,'' but what it means is that his heart's left ventricle and his aorta never fully developed. That's serious, since the left ventricle is the big half of a person's blood-pumping mechanism, and the aorta is the major artery from the heart to the rest of the body.
Zack Fisher curls up on the family couch, trying to rally from a bout with pneumonia barely a week after his fifth open-heart surgery. The next day, though, his mother reported that the antibiotic was already kicking in, he was regaining some of his usual enthusiasm for life and making plans for his upcoming 12th birthday.
And if that wasn't enough for one newborn baby, doctors soon discovered that Zach's left kidney was multicystic, full of non-functioning growths instead of the healthy tissue that's supposed to be there to help clean toxins from the body.
What this means for Zach, is that this little toughie is working and playing and going to school and kidding around with his family, and yes, admittedly sometimes feeling awfully crummy - and he's doing it all with only half a heart and one kidney.
The amazing part is - you'd never guess it. Sure, he's a little smaller than most of the guys his age, but he's usually so high-spirited that it's hard to comprehend the gravity of his situation. To look at him, you'd say he's all heart.
''How could we not help? He's such a terrific kid.''
Four of Zach's ''open-hearts'' took place before he was 2. After those repairs, he did pretty well for the next nine years, despite the necessity of frequent checkups with the heart specialists. He grew up loving outdoor activities, especially if they involved wheels and a motor. Chief among his passions are Harley Davidson motorcycles, John Deere tractors, monster trucks, and heavy construction equipment. Although still a few years away from owning any such stuff himself, he's been known to wangle a ride on occasion - he's in kid-heaven when he gets to drive a friend's garden tractor around the yard.
Last fall, Zach's family and his doctors at Buffalo Children's Hospital noticed an alarming drop in his usual zest for life.
Buffalo physicians referred him to Children's Hospital at Pittsburgh, where the experts figured out that his cardiac shunt needed replacing, and that scar tissue on his right atrium had to be removed.
The shunt, technically known as a Fontan, is a tube that was constructed and inserted by surgeons to redirect the blood flow in Zach's heart when he was only 22 months old. It was wearing out.
Since last October, Zach and his family have made frequent pilgrimages to Pittsburgh, where he's undergone every type of cardiac test imaginable, including cardiopulmonary stress tests, EKGs, echocardiograms, even a cardiac catheter, threaded into his heart to better assess its function.
As feared, the tests all pointed to the need for a fifth open-heart surgery, and it was scheduled for July 3. The Fishers were told to prepare for a three-week stay while Zack convalesced.
So, while other families celebrated the nation's birthday with hot dogs and fireworks, the Fishers spent the Fourth of July hovering over the small figure lying in an intensive care unit, gamely fighting back from one more bout with the heart-lung machine.
In true Zack fashion, he confounded the medics and rallied. Less than a week after his operation, he was back in Cattaraugus, enthroned on the living room couch, asking plaintively for his mom to rub his feet - often chilly due to his impaired circulation.
On July 11, he suffered a temporary setback, when a pneumonia bug zeroed in, necessitating a quick trip to Tri-County Hospital. A jolt of antibiotics got him back on the road to recovery, and that evening he was home again.
Despite everything, Zack has set his sights on the future. He's looking forward to his 12th birthday later this month, and he's particularly excited about the benefit picnic that his good friends, Jeanette and Todd Pierce have started organizing in his behalf.
''How could we not help?,'' said Jeanette, who got to know Zach when she was working with him in school. ''He's such a terrific kid.''
Jeanette, her husband and their willing fellow-planners sprang into action and set up the ''Zachary Fisher Heart Fund,'' c/o the Community Bank, N.A., 37 W. Main St., Gowanda, NY 14070. They also distributed collection jars in local and area businesses, although people interested in donating are welcome to send their contributions directly to the bank if they prefer.
The indefatigable planning committee also is staging an old-fashioned town picnic, scheduled for 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday, at the Cattaraugus Firemen's Club grounds on Memorial Drive. There'll be a wealth of activities, including music by the Blue Mule Band, the Magic of Don Rodgers, Tim Pritchard's karaoke, children's games, a volleyball tournament, horseshoes, 50/50, a Chinese auction, and lots of food and beverages.
Tickets are on sale at the Gowanda Harley-Davidson Shop, Gowanda Pharmacy and McCormack's Hardware in Gowanda, and at Heavenly Treasures, the Corner Drug Store and Pritchard's Hardware in Cattaraugus, as well as Cattaraugus-Little Valley Central School's Main Office in Little Valley. They're $10 each, (children under 12 free) and all proceeds go straight into the Heart Fund.
Mrs. Pierce says she's still looking for individuals or groups to prepare and donate desserts for the occasion. Also, persons with objects to offer for the Chinese auction are urged to come forward. She and the others working on this event, encourage everyone to turn out.
''Even though there's insurance,'' she explained, ''it doesn't cover things ... like the expense of driving to Buffalo and Pittsburgh time after time, or getting a motel while you're there, or food. Zach's parents have had to take so much time off work. This family's just been stretched to the limit.''
According to Zach's grandmother, Mrs. Phyllis Ivett, of South Dayton, the Lutheran organization known as Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, Chapter Chautauqua 30714, has agreed to co-sponsor the benefit. This is important because Thrivent will match any funds collected for Zachary, up to $5,000, thus doubling people's contributions.
Mrs. Ivett also donated a quilt to be raffled for Zach's fund. She said she was pleased to see tickets selling briskly at the South Dayton Firemen's Club during their July 13, chicken barbecue. The quilt will be displayed at the Community Bank in Gowanda and the Bank of Cattaraugus before the final raffle held July 27, at the Cattaraugus picnic benefit.
As for the star of the event, despite the obstacles he's faced, and a future that includes the certainty of a heart transplant, Zach remains upbeat. Much of the credit for that goes to his family: Dad and Mom, Ken and Christina, and brothers Anthony, Derik, and Ken, Jr. They love him, they support him, they treat him like a regular kid, which is exactly how he acts and how he sees himself. His fight is their fight, and they're all in it to win.
If you have questions or would like additional details, contact Jeanette Pierce at 257-5449 or 257-2151.